Category Archives: General

General posts about Freeform Games

Updating The Night Before Christmas

We’ve just updated The Night Before Christmas into our current format. Written by Tracy Bose and initially published in 2004, we haven’t significantly updated the game in over a decade and it needed a reformat.

Reformatting

So while we haven’t changed the plots or characters, we’ve made numerous changes:

  • The characters are now in the 8-page booklet format, which includes their Secret, Clue and abilities—along with the rules and the cast list.
  • The abilities are now all in the latest format.
  • Items are now all illustrated.
  • We gave the text a light edit to make sure it flows.
  • We caught a couple of minor errors still there after 17 years!
  • We improved how the free extra characters are integrated into the game by linking them to more plots and characters.

But besides that, it’s the same 1948 game set at the Evington-Browne’s Christmas Eve cocktail party, held in their hunting lodge in the mountains north of Boston. A valet has died – is it murder? (What do you think?)

Purchase or re-download the game files

You can purchase The Night Before Christmas here.

If you’ve previously purchased The Night Before Christmas, you can re-download the new format using the exact location as the previous files. (We will write to anyone who has made a recent purchase.)

Send us your feedback

We love to hear from you about your parties – you can let us know via Facebook or our contact page.

Our games by year…

Following on from our birthday post last month, I thought it would be interesting to show when we published each game. I’ve excluded translations to keep things simple…

2001

2002

2003

2004

2005

2006

2007

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2018

2019

  • Christmas Lies (the festive version of Hollywood Lies) by Steve Hatherley

2020

2021

One of the things that amazes me is how my memory has changed everything. I think of A Speakeasy Murder as one of our newer games, but it’s now over seven years old! And was it really in 2009 when we published The Karma Club?

Looking back: 20 years on

Twenty years ago, on 9th October 2001, Freeform Games was incorporated.

So that’s the day we celebrate as our birthday.

We made our first sale ten weeks later, on 17th December.

In 2001…

There was no iPhone, iPad, Facebook or Twitter. Google was three years old, and Amazon was nothing like the behemoth it is now. And Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 5 was the most common internet browser.

Payment over the Internet was relatively novel when we started, so we still accepted checks/ cheques. Not that checks have been popular – we’ve processed fewer than ten checks in 20 years.

Our first game was Death on the Gambia. It was initially more complicated: combat was fiddlier, you could catch river fever, and each character had a success or failure epilogue depending on how the player felt they did. We’ve simplified our games since then to make them easier to run.

In our early games, some characters had more abilities than others. (You can still see this in some of our older games that we haven’t updated to our new format, such as Curse of the Pharaoh.) In our more recent games, everyone has just three abilities.

Over time, we’ve improved our games’ layout to make them easier to run and play. We’re also more consistent with our look and feel so that when you buy a Freeform Games murder mystery game, you know what you’re getting. (Although we still have a backlog of games to update into the latest format.)

Foreign-language games

We live in the UK, and we initially expected that most of our customers would be here and in other English-speaking countries. But it quickly became clear that offering downloadable PDFs instead of physical games meant that people from all over the world would be keen to join the party.

We’ve had customers in 84 countries (at least—PayPal doesn’t always tell us where a customer is based). However, about two-thirds of our customers come from the USA—by far our biggest market.

We offered our first translated murder mystery in 2003 (Tod auf dem Gambia – a German translation of Death on the Gambia), and we offer 13 translated games. We now have two partners, Die Besten Familienspiele in Germany and FranceMurder in France.

Curse of the Pharaoh – played in New Zealand

Challenges

The last 20 years have not been without their challenges.

Our biggest challenge has undoubtedly been the pandemic, where our sales dropped off a cliff in March 2020. However, as we reported in January, things have been picking up ever since and hopefully will continue to improve as we learn to live with coronavirus.

Other challenges have included unreliable web hosts (in one case causing us to lose a week’s traffic in October, our busiest period) and changes to Google’s algorithm.

We get most of our traffic from Google, and as they have been trying to weed out low-quality sites from their search results, we have occasionally been affected by those changes. But as you might expect, we only remember the changes that affect us negatively – we don’t remember the good changes!

Murder on the Istanbul Express – our latest game

20 years old

We had no idea that 20 years later we would still be running Freeform Games, with over 30 games to our name.

But we’re happy we are – and here’s to the next 20 years!

Hosting and Playing Death in Venice

Last weekend I hosted and played Death in Venice, using Discord for video chat.

When Mo wrote Death in Venice earlier in the year I deliberately kept away from it because I wanted to play and host simultaneously.

Normally our games don’t allow us to do that – the host needs to know too much about what’s going on, but as the games we’ve written for online video chat are simpler (there are no items or money to be managed, and no fighting), we’ve included a version of the instructions that lets the host be the player.

So that’s what I did. (I had planned to do this earlier in the year, but other events interfered… 2020 has not been an easy year!)

Differences in the two versions

When you purchase Death in Venice (and also Reunion with Death) you are given the option to download a “standard” version (like all our games) or a “Host as Player” version.

The differences are all in the instructions for hosts document (of which there are two versions – one if you are hosting as normal, and one if the host is playing). The “host as player” instructions differ as follows:

  • Casting table removes any plot information – such as who the murderer is, and other dark secrets.
  • The details of the murder and other sub-plots are omitted.

The only place where the murderer is revealed is in that character’s booklet, and also in the murder solution.

So to start with you should only read the instructions, the game background, and the quick reference sheet. Don’t read anything else!

Organising and Casting

I recruited players from the Facebook UK-Freeforms group (filled with enthusiasts who enjoy games like the ones we publish) and created a Facebook Messenger group for early game discussion.

I created a Google Form for casting, and asked each player to choose which three players they liked the sound of best, based on the information from the cast list. (I also had a “I’m happy to play anyone” option.)

I cast myself last, as I didn’t mind who I played. As it happens, I ended up with one of the optional characters. I didn’t do that deliberately, but I would do that again—I didn’t read my character until the day, and that meant that I could step in if we had a last-minute cancellation. (We did have such a cancellation, but I found a player from the waitlist instead.)

When I sent out the character booklets I stressed to everyone that I couldn’t answer plot or character questions as I hadn’t read anything. (I could answer logistics questions though!)

Discord

I set up a Discord sever for Death in Venice, as it worked well when I hosted The Karma Club. I set up individual channels labelled “Casanova #1” and “Casanova #2” so the players could have private chats. (I’ve described how to use Discord here.)

Death in Venice Discord server

We did have a few minor technical problems, but they were resolved either by closing Discord and restarting, or just waiting for Discord to resolve the problem itself.

I asked everyone to change their name on Discord to their character name – mine was Cruz Vicente (Steve, he).

On the day

I told everyone that I would be joining Discord 30 minutes before the start of the game. That gave us time to sort out a couple of technical difficulties, and some players changed into costume. (My costume was just a hat.)

As part of my initial announcements, I covered all the items that I had sent out with the character booklets (playing time, the fact that I couldn’t answer plot questions, how abilities would work, and so on). When I ran The Karma Club I had forgotten to do this, and I think this game ran a lot smoother because I went over the logistics again.

I stuck to the timetable in the game – we started playing at 2pm and finished at 4:30pm. Because I’d clarified that we were finishing at 4:30pm, I found that at the end of the game everyone returned to the main game “common room” with no prompting, so that worked well.

For announcements, I had them in a folder on my laptop. (They’re provided as graphics files.) I messaged them directly to the player who needed to read them out. Shortly after that I posted each announcement into the announcements channel on Discord so that if anyone wanted to go back and read them they could.

For abilities, Secrets and Clues, everyone had printed them out and we just showed them up to our webcams. That worked fine.

How was playing and hosting?

Playing and hosting worked fine. I was worried that I would get carried away by playing, so I set a countdown timer on my phone for each announcement. That gave me a reminder for each announcement so I didn’t forget them. (I should probably do the same when I’m hosting a game normally—they can be hectic.)

I achieved most of my goals, I had a good time, and between us we identified the murderer.

I think that given the choice I would rather either play or host rather than play and host, but it was definitely an interesting experience.

My Tips for Running and Hosting

So here are my tips for running and hosting our online murder mystery parties. They apply to both Death in Venice and Reunion with Death.

  • 30 minutes: Be online 30 minutes in advance to settle everyone in and help fix any technical difficulties.
  • Stick to the timetable: Stick to the timetable in the game, and let everyone know when you expect to end the game.
  • Go over the logistics again: Go over the logistics again—not everyone will remember them.
  • Cast yourself as an optional character: As an optional character you have the chance of taking a core character if one of them drops at the last minute.

Death in Venice – an online murder mystery for lockdown

We’ve just released another game specifically designed to be played online during this unprecedented lockdown – Death in Venice.

Death in Venice is for 5-9 players (and one host) and is again designed to be played using video chat (Zoom, Hangouts, or whatever your favourite is).

Last night at the glamorous Venice Film Festival, controversial award-winning director Clay McFarland was dead in front of St Mark’s Cathedral – hacked to death with a meat cleaver.

Clay’s movie, Never Look Back, won the festival’s prestigious Golden Lion award last night. After the post-awards party, the cast and crew and their guests returned to the Casanova, the luxury yacht they are using for the festival. All except Clay, who remained behind – and who never returned.

Everyone now is confined to their cabins aboard the Casanova, while the police start their investigation. The only way they can communicate is online.

As cathedral bells toll out across the ancient city, on board the Casanova a frothy ferment of vineyards, memoirs, gossip, jealousy, and movie-set punch-ups will come to the boil.

Charge your glasses, put on your designer sunglasses, and and join the cast and crew of Never Look Back as they try to solve the mystery of death in Venice!

Learn more about Death in Venice here.

New lockdown murder mystery – Reunion of Death

To help with those Coronavirus lockdown blues, we’ve just released our latest game – Reunion with Death.

Reunion with Death is for 6-9 players (and one host as usual) and has been written to be played online in lockdown, using video chat. We’ve included detailed instructions for using Google Hangouts, but you can use any system that you are familiar with.

Reunion with Death is set at a 15-year high-school reunion, in smallish-town America. Former students are gathering in the town’s main hotel, ahead of the big party tonight. But one of them, former prom queen Mikolette Lukanis, has been found murdered!

Everyone is locked in their individual hotel rooms, pending a full police investigation – they only way they can communicate is using the hotel’s video system. High-school rivalries will re-emerge, old grudges and secrets will surface: along with a heady mix of present-day envy, betrayal, and lust.

Restock the minibar, put on your complementary terrycloth robe and slippers, hang out the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign, and join the alumni of Holborrow High as they prepare for their reunion with Death!

Learn more about Reunion with Death here.

“Best” Murder Mystery Parties

Here’s a roundup of murder mystery party games by Hexagamers. They’ve taken a good long look at the various murder mystery companies that you can find on the internet and are trying them out to judge which really are the best.

Happily, we’re in the list – but they have yet to try one of our games. We’re looking forward to their feedback when they do.

Unbiased reviews

One of the things they talk about is the lack of unbiased reviews on the internet. Everyone puts testimonials from satisfied customers on their sites – and we do it here: Your murder mystery stories.

But they do point out the lack of negative reviews. After all, as a company we’re incentivised only to put up the good stories. That’s only human nature, obviously, but it’s not the only story. Most of the time we only receive positive reviews – and I think that’s because if the party has gone well, then people like to share their enjoyment. If it hasn’t gone well, they’re less likely to want to send us feedback.

But the point about unbiased reviews remains.

There are options for unbiased reviews such as Trustpilot, so that’s something we might explore.

Facebook likes

It’s also interesting to see how many Facebook likes the other companies have. We don’t push Facebook particularly hard and so we haven’t chased Facebook likes, but clearly we could do a bit better.

Playing A Will to Murder

Cornelius and Janice conspiring on the balcony

We don’t often get to play our games, but last weekend I played in A Will to Murder.

Guy, one of my tabletop roleplaying friends, had bought A Will to Murder, and wanted to try one it with some of his friends. Although he didn’t ask me to run it (I thought he was going to), I said I was happy to play when I heard he was organising it.

Luckily, I couldn’t remember the plot of A Will to Murder. I last read it back in 2010, when I was proofreading it for Mo (who wrote it). Seven years is enough time for me to have completely forgotten about it, particularly given that I’ve not played it.

(So that explains why, if you ask a question about one of our older games, sometimes I’m a little slow in replying: I’m busy refreshing my memory. I’m pretty sure Mo has a much better memory.)

Even if I had remembered the plot, I would still have been happy to play and help make up the numbers. (If that had happened, I wouldn’t have played to win – that wouldn’t have worked as I would have known too many game secrets. Instead I would have played to help give everyone else a good time.)

Guy cast me as Alan Trode, the motorcycle dealer/mechanic who has married into the dysfunctional O’Leary family. The costume hint suggested biking leathers or denim jacket, so I wore a pair of jeans and a leather jacket – although it was so hot (we played in June, on the hottest day of the year so far) that I only wore the jacket for a few minutes.

Alan and Corey inside (with Janis and Cornelius on the balcony outside)

We played A Will to Murder with the minimum of six players. I think A Will to Murder works better with slightly more players, but a couple of players who had promised to attend had to drop out. A Will to Murder still works fine with six, but it would have been better with more.

None of the other players had played a Freeform Games murder mystery before (and Guy hadn’t run one either). Apart from a slightly slow start, though, they all seemed to take to it like old hands.

From what I could see, the slow start was partly because most of the players knew each other well (and had some catching up to do) and also because we only had six players. With few players, it’s possible that everyone in your Tips for Beginners is already talking to someone else. So that means you must:

  • Interrupt, which isn’t a natural action for a reserved Brit like myself.
  • Strike up a conversation with someone else with someone you don’t know. You should do this anyway, but at the start of a game conversations with someone your character doesn’t really know can be a bit awkward as nobody wants to give anything away too soon.
  • Wait (which is what happens after you’ve finished that awkward conversation in the bullet point above…).

I’m not going to talk about the plot of A Will to Murder because, well, spoilers, but I’m happy to report that for me, I had a relatively successful game (as measured by number of goals achieved, which isn’t a proper measure of success). I had four goals, and I succeeded in two of them. As one of them was effectively impossible (keeping a secret is always doomed to failure in one of our games!) I regard that as two out of three. That’s pretty good for me – I’m often hopeless at achieving my character’s goals.

Regina and Gillian

And that’s not really how I measure success anyway. It’s all about whether I had a good time – and I certainly did. I enjoyed the game, I enjoyed watching everyone get into character, and I enjoyed the stories and the laughing at the end as everyone’s secrets were revealed.

So overall I had a lovely time playing A Will to Murder. I met new people, and hopefully I will get to run another game for them soon.

Way out West in book form

I’ve wanted to publish our murder mystery games in book form for a long time now, so I’m particularly pleased to be able to say that Way out West is available from Amazon.

Way-out-West-bookOne of the problems with publishing a murder mystery game in book format is that you can’t actually play the murder mystery without destroying the book. So that means either providing a CD with the character files on, or providing a download link, or asking customers to buy the downloadable version as well.

None of those are particularly satisfactory; the CD is more complexity, the download means coming up with a way for a secure password and makes VAT more complicated, and nobody wants to buy two versions of the same game.

But our free version of Way out West (which you can get simply by signing up to our newsletter) solves those problems. Now you can have the book and downloadable files at the same time.

CreateSpace

We used Amazon’s CreateSpace self-publishing system for Way out West. This is a print-on-demand service that means we don’t have to keep any expensive stock, or become involved in shipping.

We chose Amazon over Lulu for two main reasons. First, Amazon is the online retailing heavyweight, and by having one of our games on Amazon we might attract new customers. Second, Amazon Prime members get free shipping on a CreateSpace book, which is an added bonus.

I have to say that I found CreateSpace a bit fiddly to use. If we ever use it again I suspect it will be much easier.

Contents

We’ve had to think about the contents and layout of Way out West compared to the downloadable files. With the downloadable files, while we expect you to read the instructions first, you can read the other files in any order you like.

With a book, though, we needed to decide an order for everything. So here’s the contents:

Introduction

  • Welcome to Way out West: This section.
  • What the host does: A brief summary of what the host of a Freeform Games murder mystery does.
  • Cactus Gulch Gazette: The front page of the local newspaper, containing background information.
  • Cast list: A brief summary of all the characters in Way out West, including the extra characters that come with the purchased edition.
  • Casting: Tips for casting Way out West.
  • About the Author

Timetable

  • Before the game: Our suggested timetable leading up to your murder mystery party.
    Invitations: What to include in your invitations.
  • Your Venue: Advice on preparing your venue.
  • Preparing Way out West: Printing characters and getting everything ready for play.
  • On the day: Our step-by-step guide to hosting Way out West.
  • Solution: Every murder needs a solution.

Characters

  • Introduction: An explanation of how the characters are presented.
  • Characters: The detailed backstories for each character, including goals and a list of the characters that they know.
  • Tips for players: Playing one of our murder mystery games can sometimes be a bit confusing for some people, so these are our tips to help them get started.

Rules

  • Player rules: The basic rules for Way out West.
  • Detailed rules: The detailed rules that the Host needs, covering things like gunfights and arrests.

Afterword

  • Buying the main game: What you get if you purchase the full version of Way out West.
  • Questions: Where to go if you have questions about Way out West or any of our other games.
  • Our other games: A selection of our other games.

Pricing

Unfortunately we can’t offer this book for free, as there are costs involved in producing a physical product. However, we have kept the book as cheap as possible and it is on sale for $5.99.

Available on Amazon

You can purchase Way out West on Amazon here (US) and here (UK).

Way out West on Kindle

Another advantage of using Amazon means that it’s pretty easy to create a Kindle version. Easy, but not seamless. We found we had to make a few changes to the layout to suit a Kindle, in particularly removing anything complicated (such as the three column layout for the newspaper) and the boxes for item cards.

To be honest, a Kindle version of Way out West is a bit of experiment. It’s not as easy to use as a book, and I don’t think anyone would ever be able to actually play Way out West from the Kindle version. It’s for those who really like their Kindles…

You can see Way out West Kindle Edition here (US) and here (UK).

Looking back at 2014

So it’s that time of year again when we look back at the past twelve months and review how we did. We did this for 2013, and now it’s time for 2014.

Sales overall – a bit flat

2014 was overall a bit flat for us – a rise of just over 1%. However, that figure hides quite a bit of good news, as although the first few months were generally very bad, since the beginning of September our sales picked up and showed typically 10-20% year-on-year growth.

Hopefully that trend will continue into 2015.

We believe that the improvement is down to two things: first, we’ve improved our website and made it more user-friendly (and thus search-engine friendly). Second, Google changed it’s algorithms again. A couple of years ago Google changed their algorithm and penalized low-quality websites. Unfortunately it seems that they were a bit over-zealous and we might have been caught by that change. Last year they re-tweaked their algorithms and we appear to be one of the beneficiaries. Hopefully future tweaks will only be to our benefit!

Best selling games

Once again, our best selling games were Way out West (by some way), then Casino Fatale, and followed by Hollywood Lies. The overall levels of sales were broadly the same as for 2013, with Casino Fatale dropping a bit. Overall, the top three games accounted for 28% of our sales.

Way out West goes Steampunk

Way out West – our best-selling game of 2014

We believe that Way out West’s popularity is boosted as it’s our free game – so presumably customers are upgrading to the paid version when they want to add more players. One thing we could do to test that is to change the free game, and that’s something we may think about in the future.

New and updated games

Murder on the Dance Floor

Murder on the Dance Floor – one of our two new games for 2014

We published two new games in 2014: Death on the Dancefloor and A Speakeasy Murder. We also updated one of our older games, Murder at Sea (originally All at Sea), bringing it into line with our current format.

Sales of A Speakeasy Murder have started strongly, and in 2015 it may be challenging Hollywood Lies for a top three position.

Doubling our newsletter’s readership

In 2014 we doubled the readership of our newsletter, which was its best growth for a long time. By signing up to our newsletter you also get to download our free copy of Way out West, which no doubt helps explains some of the growth!

Improving the website

Last year we identified that we needed to improve our website and as a result we:

  • Made a few cosmetic changes (including more photos) and rearranged the layout to make it more friendly.
  • Changed the site header to the montage photograph when testing proved that it was more effective than a testimonial.
  • Added a page for customers new to our games.
  • Updated the FAQ and pulled it all into one place (it was tucked around in different places before).
    combined the stories and pictures pages into a single page, which makes them easier to see (and avoids duplicating content which can be a search-engine black mark).
  • Kept the blog going fairly consistently for most of the year, but towards the end of the year Real Life got away from me and I was unable to update is as much as I liked. I’m hoping to be a bit more regular again in 2015.

Overall the website changes seem to have worked, so I think that’s a success.

Looking back at our plans for 2014

We set ourselves some goals this time last year. Here’s how we did:

  • Get the website into a healthier place: Overall traffic was flat, but that hides a dip in the early part of 2014 and an encouraging upward trend since the start of September. So hopefully that will continue.
  • Publish Murder on the Dancefloor and A Speakeasy Slaughter: success. We thought we might get Death on the Rocks published as well, but that has slipped.
  • Update All at Sea: success, and now published as Murder at Sea.
  • Mo and I talked about possibly getting together one weekend to write a game (a bit like Peaky), but that didn’t happen and it was always optional.

Looking forward to 2015

Our plans for 2015 include:

  • Continuing to improve the website, and keep an eye on its performance.
  • Publish Death on the Rocks.
  • Update Hollywood Lies, bringing it into line with our current format.
  • Publish our standard rules. Our outstanding action from the feedback we received last May was to prepare standard rules that can be shared and sent out in advance. We’re well on the way with this.

Here’s looking forward to a good 2015 for Freeform Games!